EW Staff
March 25, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Just hearing the term summer movies can set off bells and whistles in your brain, most of which begin with the letter s. Speed. Special effects. Science fiction. Superheroes. All those things promise to dominate the movies of this summer. Think Thor, Priest, Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Conan the Barbarian, Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World, and Final Destination 5. How excited (or exhausted) are you already? Yet as much as I want to see most of those films — hey, I’m the rare critic who liked Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — when I think of the summer movies that truly buzz me with anticipation, I’m more drawn to those that look like they might have a more personal dimension, even a — dare I say it? — humanistic touch. Here are the ones I’m most eager to see.

Two years ago, I liked The Hangover okay, but I kept waiting for it to throw wilder pitches — to have Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis & Co. wake up to even more hilariously deranged and embarrassing morning-after mishaps. The whole nature of the sequel, which takes the gang to Bangkok, is that it has to push the My God, what did we do last night? envelope a notch or two further. Or, at least, that’s my fervent hope. And now that I’ve seen Limitless, I’m convinced that Cooper, far more than a one-trick frat-house pony, is a bona fide movie star. (May 26)

A years-in-the-making new film from director Terrence Malick is always cause for excitement, and this one sounds, almost literally, like a Malick dream. It’s rooted in the 1950s (but also has celestial scenes that seem to be like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and stars Brad Pitt as a straitlaced father tangling with his sensitive son, who grows into a tormented soul played by Sean Penn. I still think Malick’s early films (Badlands, Days of Heaven) are his best, and this one looks as if it might share their up-close-and-personal flavor. (May 27)

In Ohio in 1979, a group of kids shooting a Super 8 movie inadvertently witness the disaster of a derailed freight train. What caused the accident? Super 8 appears to crossbreed The Blair Witch Project and Blow-Up, which by itself sounds fascinating. But the real reason I’m so pumped for it is that after the vibrant pop storytelling of 2009’s Star Trek, I’ll follow director J.J. Abrams anywhere, especially when his producer is Steven Spielberg. (June 10)

? CARS 2
At times, I’ve thought of forming a support group for those of us who love Cars, Pixar’s candy-colored roadster fairy tale. It was a financial success, yet among Pixar cognoscenti, the film has never gotten a lot of respect (it’s become trendy to say that Cars is the worst Pixar movie ever). But I’ve long reveled in the friendly magic of its goggle-eyed speed-demon stock cars and its touching tale of a stranded auto who brings a dusty desert town to life. I’m just as primed for Cars 2, in which Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen journeys to Tokyo, as many folks would be for a sequel to WALL?E or Up. (June 24)

Yes, it shares a premise with the dreadful No Strings Attached. But there are times when an actor coming off a hot performance is ripe to explode, and this rom-com has three: Justin Timberlake (so sleazy-cool in The Social Network), Mila Kunis (so sexy-suave in Black Swan), and Emma Stone (so quick in Easy A). Directed by Will Gluck, who guided Stone to her Easy A triumph, it’s the comedy I most want to see, if only to watch this trio let loose. (July 22)

Hello, summer; goodbye, wizards. It’s the oddest sensation, these feelings of nostalgia that overtake me as I study the 2011 schedule of Summer Movies Promising to Entertain Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children of All Ages. Slotted in there with the rest of the big pictures featuring pirates, pandas, and X-Men is the very last act of the great Harry Potter franchise. We’ve spent a decade together! And so, as I offer my own list of titles I’m most anticipating this summer, I salute the eight-movie epic with a mug of Butterbeer. Without further wand-waving…

I thought Part 1 was the best, most completely satisfying episode to date, and since the same team (led by director David Yates) is still in sync for this one, I’m all the more ready to be spellbound. The big finale — perhaps you’ve read what massive plot resolutions take place? — will be its own global event. (July 15)

Even without knowing anything about the star of this oddly titled film directed by Jodie Foster, the premise is extreme enough to grab my attention: A troubled man uses a beaver hand puppet to communicate with his family. But ah, we do know a thing or two about the star, Mel Gibson, don’t we? He’s a troubled (that convenient catchall word) man who has done and said hateful things. Does our knowledge enhance or detract from our experience of the movie? I’m gnawing to find out. (May 6)

I already know how good this drama is: The captivating, emotionally sophisticated beaut was one of my favorites from the Toronto Film Festival last fall. The neophytes in question are a father (Christopher Plummer, past due for big awards) who blossoms as his authentic self when he announces his homosexuality at the age of 75, and a son in his 30s (Ewan McGregor) embarking on his first real adult relationship (with Inglourious Basterds‘ Mélanie Laurent). The movie looks great, too. Makes sense: Writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) is also a graphic designer and an artist. (June 3)

The words adapted from the graphic novel often make me break out in blotches. But this thing? Something about a spaceship that lands in 19th-century New Mexico and a lone cowboy who leads the townsfolk in fighting back? And Daniel Craig as that there cowboy? And Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau as director? That combo leaves me tingly rather than itchy. (July 29)

I didn’t read The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel about black maids in white households in 1962 Mississippi. Instead, I listened to it as an audiobook, where the voices of white and black women came alive, immeasurably deepening the story. That’s reason enough to hope this movie version can do the same. Plus, the prestige cast includes the delicious Emma Stone as unconventional white lady Skeeter Phelan, and the great Viola Davis as courageous maid Aibileen Clark. Just the sort of thing I’ll be craving come August, when those pirates are likely to still be in the Caribbean. (Aug. 12)

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